The Gift That Money Can't Buy
By Pam Leo, Family Literacy Activist

“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”  —  Voltaire

Whether families celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Solstice, the holidays have become more stressful for many adults and less joyful for many children. Holiday preparations of special cooking, shopping and wrapping, with the addition of holiday events and gatherings can overload our already hectic schedules.

Schedule overload causes a vicious cycle of stress. When adults are stressed and overwhelmed they don’t have as much attention to give children. Children quickly feel that drop in attention and the resulting loss of connection causes needy-child behavior, which adds even more stress to the adults. Stress is indeed contagious!
We call winter the cold and flu season and blame our illnesses on the cold weather, but isn’t it just as likely that our holiday stress suppresses our immune systems and makes us more susceptible to illness? An estimated 75-90% of all doctors appointments are for stress related ailments and complaints. It makes sense that we can improve our health by finding ways to reduce our stress. Imagine my delight when I came across the research done by the University of Sussex that revealed reading for a mere six minutes reduces stress by 68%! We can actually reduce holiday stress for the whole family by taking even a little time to read aloud to children every day. We already know that reading aloud is good for our children. It strengthens the parent-child bond and builds a strong foundation for learning to read. Now that we know that the adults also benefit from reading all those stories, we have more incentive than ever to make daily reading aloud a family ritual.

I recently saw a Facebook post that proposed wrapping up 24 children’s books to open and read each night (or day) from December 1st through Christmas Eve. This could be done in place of, or in addition to an advent calendar. I thought, “What a great idea, and why should it be only for families who celebrate Christmas?”

Whether a family observes Christmas or a different tradition, we all need the health benefits of the stress reduction we gain by creating a nightly family reading ritual. If we read a book a day for the whole month December we could honor all traditions.

For many families, reading a book together each night will not be a new ritual or something they do only during the holidays, but it may be one that gets
crowded out by the busyness of the holidays. As I was researching different winter holiday traditions I
discovered that the lighting of candles was one of the rituals they all shared. There are advent candles for Christmas, menorah candles for
Chanukah, the seven candles of Kwanzaa and lighting candles for Solstice celebrations. Part of what turns an activity into a ritual is doing it in the same special way every time. If we bring the family together for read aloud time by taking turns being the one to light, “help” light or turn on the story candle, we create a magical holiday reading ritual and an antidote for stress that can be observed by all families.

Some families celebrate more than one tradition. I know many who observe Christmas, Chanukah, and the Winter Solstice. When we are picking out the special books to wrap for our December read alouds we can choose some children’s books about traditions that are different from our own. This will allow our children the opportunity to learn about how other families celebrate holidays. I know of so many wonderful children’s books about Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Solstice and Christmas that it was challenging to pick just one to feature in this article. I finally decided on one of my old favorites, The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas, by Madeleine L’Engle. I chose this one, not because it features Christmas traditions, but because it features family traditions.

This tiny 56 page chapter book is about the Austin family who has a ritual of doing one special thing each day of December to prepare for Christmas. It is described as being for children ages 4 to 8, which makes it a perfect family read aloud and it is also the prequel to a series about this family. It could be a November read aloud for all families either because the family celebrates Christmas or because a family wants to learn about those who do. It could also be a quick adult read for parents who want to be inspired to create special ways to provide more family connection rituals around whichever holiday their family observes.

Creating a family ritual of reading together daily has to be the hands down, best use of our often limited time with our children that I have found. I can think of no another activity that can simultaneously give the gifts of: improving our health by lowering our stress, teaching us about other cultures, reinforcing our family values, increasing our children’s literacy skills and strengthening our parent-child bond, all in as little as just six minutes. Best of all, reading together gives children the gift money can’t buy; the gift they want most. It gives children the feeling of connection they get when we are giving them our attention. The value of the time we spend reading together cannot be measured; it is priceless. My three holiday wishes for your family ; whichever tradition you observe, are that you may have good health, good books and many good times connecting through reading aloud together. Peace, Love and Joy.

Pam Leo, is a family literacy activist, the author of Connection Parenting, and a new poem, Please Read To Me. Her enduring love of children's books, her passion for literacy, and her commitment to empowering parents, are combined in her new role as the founder of the Book Fairy Pantry Project, whose mission is "No Child With No Books," because "Books change children's lives... For good."